Tuesday, October 24, 2006

You know that fearmongering "These Are the Stakes" ad the Republicans released last week? It included some vague bluster from al-Qaeda leaders -- but it also one detailed warning:

“We sent our people to Moscow, to Tashkent, to other central Asian states, and they negotiated. And we purchased some suitcase bombs." --Ayman Al-Zawahiri ("Al Qaeda: We Bought Nuke Cases," [New York] Daily News, 3/22/04)

That was reported by a Pakistani journalist named Hamid Mir. It ought to be noted that when it was reported, not everyone bought it:

... "(Al-Zawahri) is bluffing," an unnamed official at the Russian Federal Nuclear Energy Agency told the official Ria-Novosti news agency Monday. "It is practically impossible not only to buy nuclear weapons but even their components in Russia."

...Maxim Shingarkin, a former major in the Russian military's secretive 12th Department, which is in charge of strategic weapons, said suitcase nuclear bombs, if they are still in Russia's arsenal, were too difficult to maintain and had too short a lifespan to make them feasible as terrorist weapons. He said Russia only had built about 100 suitcase bombs and had not produced any new ones since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

...He said the suitcase nukes have a lifespan of only one to three years because some of the materials, such as the battery and the conventional explosives that produce the charge that sets off the nuclear reaction, deteriorate over time and must be replaced.

...Charles Digges, an expert on Russia's nuclear program with the Bellona environmental group in Norway who is usually critical of the claims of Russian nuclear officials, agreed, saying "these things have been more or less accounted for."

It also ought to be noted that Dean Barnett -- no liberal -- said much the same thing recently in this post at Hugh Hewitt's TownHall blog:

... maintaining nuclear weapons in a cave on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border would certainly be beyond Al Qaeda's abilities. This is a serious problem for the terrorists; if Al Qaeda ever acquired these things, the bombs have missed probably 25 maintenance adjustments, or every scheduled trip to the shop since the breakup of the Soviet Union; ... if they do somehow function, they’ll achieve only a fraction of their intended yield....

The rumors of Al Qaeda being a nuclear power began in 1998. The London based Arab daily Al-Watan Al-Arabi reported that Chechens had acquired 20 suitcase nukes from Russian facilities with the intention of transferring the bombs to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in exchange for $30 million and two tons of opium.

... If Al Qaeda were a nuclear power for almost a decade now, would it have not used one of their suitcase nuke devices on the Coale
[sic] instead of the pittance of conventional TNT that it instead utilized? If Al Qaeda were a nuclear power for almost a decade now, would it be engaging in relatively penny ante activities like hijacking planes and bombing commuter trains? If Al Qaeda were a nuclear power and became one over eight years ago, what plausible explanation could there possibly be for the organization's "restraint" in not utilizing the devices over the past eight years?

Hamid Mir (who's writing a book on bin Laden) was sounding the alarm again recently:

Osama bin Laden is planning to carry out new, more destructive attacks inside the United States, and there is someone working on this terror plot currently in the US, according to Hamid Mir, the famed Pakistani journalist who obtained the only post-9/11 interviews with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri....

Mir ... said that bin Laden has assigned a man named Adnan Al-Shukri Juma to carry out a new attack within the US which is intended to be larger than the 11 September, 2001 attacks. According to Mir, Adnan Jumaa has smuggled explosives and nuclear materials into the US through the Mexican border over the last two years and is hiding somewhere in America where the FBI has not been able to locate him....

Barnett's response was that this was no more believable than an earlier warning:

The latest Suitcase Nuke blather comes from a Pakistani journalist who claims he got a scoop while doing some muckraking in Afghanistan. To keep things hyper-topical, this intrepid reporter tells us that the nukes were smuggled into America through the porous Mexican border.

When I first wrote about this topic over two years ago, the inspiration was some kook on Fox News who was assuring us that eight U.S. cities would meet their demise in the Summer of '04.

Nevertheless, the story about Adnan Al-Shukri-Juma, whose surname is also spelled Shukrijumah, caught the attention of quite a few righty bloggers, most notably Dr. Rusty Shackleford of My Pet Jawa, who set off widespread pants-wetting by misreading the article and asserting that Mir had predicted a nuke attack on the U.S. during Ramadan. Dr. Rusty actually believed for a while that that message-board post predicting attacks on NFL stadiums might be part of this Ramadan nuke plot. At one point he also reported that one of his readers had spotted Shukrijumah in Austin, Texas.

Now, I don't want to dismiss this altogether -- there are non-crazies (e.g., Brian Ross's ABC News investigative team) who take some of the worry about Shrukijumah seriously. And both Barnett and the Norway-based expert Charles Digges remind us that al-Qaeda could have dirty bombs (radioactive material detonated by conventional explosives) rather than suitcase nukes (small fission devices).

But it's quite possible that Hamid Mir is engaged in hyperbole, or is taking al-Qaeda hyperbole too seriously -- and that that's what wound up in the GOP's ad.

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